Have you ever noticed how restaurants, especially chains, won’t hesitate to send out five waiters and a personal cupcake once they get the tip that it’s your birthday, but they never actually sing the traditional “Happy Birthday” song to you? That’s because, up until recently, they would have had to pay Warner Music thousands of dollars in copyright fees.
Despite being the world’s most famous celebration song, Warner Music Group and other corporations have been collecting royalties from “Happy Birthday to You” for about ninety years. Every time the well-known jingle is played on television, radio, film, or even just sung in a public setting, Warner Music can charge anywhere from $1,500 to $50,000. However, is their copyright actually valid? As it turns out: no, it’s not. They have been unjustly charging people and companies for years.
In 2013, independent filmmaker Jennifer Nelson filed a lawsuit against Warner Music after making a documentary on the song’s origins, claiming that the company had been unfairly collecting money from a song that should technically be free to the public. Unexpectedly, in 2015, a federal judge in California ruled Warner Music’s copyright claim invalid. They will have to return at least portions of royalties that they collected since before 2009, and full charges since post-2009. Soon, the world’s most famous song will be in the public domain and free to use.